When she started working for Instacart two years ago, Heidi Carrico typically made between $600 and $900 each week from the grocery-delivery app. That was several app updates ago.
“My income has fallen by at least 50 percent, likely more,” Carrico, a Portland, Oregon-based Instacart shopper, told The Daily Beast. “I’d have to really sit down and crunch the numbers. It’s a good week if I make $300.”
Tip cuts, a mystifying new algorithmic pay system, and longer driving distances mean Carrico is working fewer hours for Instacart and making less money per hour, she said. And she’s not alone. From Nov. 3 to 5, Instacart workers nationwide are going on strike to protest what they say are worsening working conditions. It comes on the heels of strikes by rideshare app drivers and unionization efforts by workers for food delivery apps across the world.
These gig workers don’t have centralized factory floors where they can organize. Many can’t even unionize in the U.S. because their companies classify them as contractors, not employees. But through a rolling series of strikes, these workers are determined to make the gig economy work for them.
It’s an ad hoc labor movement, led by workers without formal unions. Sometimes that means trial-and-error protests as workers test their collective bargaining power. The upcoming Instacart strike will be at least the fourth time its workers have protested changes to the platform.
“Sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t,” Sarah Clarke, an Instacart shopper based in Silicon Valley, California said. “The first strike we ever did, for example, is when they completely removed tips. We did a strike and they were like, ‘Fine, we’ll add the tips back.’”
Instacart works by letting customers order their groceries online or through an app. The company then matches the order with a nearby Instacart worker (called “shoppers”) who goes to the store, picks out groceries, and delivers them to the customer. But the company has continuously tinkered with its payment model since its 2012 founding. Where it used to pay workers 40 cents for each item on the grocery list, plus a delivery fee, now it computes payment by an algorithm, which some workers claim is deliberately opaque.
“We have no idea. There’s no rhyme or reason for it,” Sandra Wiggins, another Portland-based Instacart worker said. “Instacart claims there’s an algorithm that’s used and it’s a learning algorithm that takes into account all kinds of different factors including things like distance, time of day, the market, the items being shopped and whether they’re difficult in some way—because some items are more difficult than others, for example, picking out produce. There’s a huge list of things that goes into how they compute a batch payment offer. Again, it doesn’t really add up to something logical. It looks very arbitrary.”
Wiggins, who typically shops with Instacart for about eight hours a week, said she’d seen the upper range of her pay drop from about $250 a week to $160 since Instacart rolled out the algorithmic pay model. But strikes aren’t always successful. When workers organized against the new pay structure, they won few victories.
“The last one we had was when they totally fucked up our pay and switched everything around and got rid of the item commission and the batch incentive,” Clarke said, referring to the per-item payment structure and a base delivery fee. “We gave them a list of I think seven reasons we were striking, and we pretty much didn’t get any of them. This time we’re going back to the basics of only asking for one thing.”
When Instacart workers go on strike in November, they’ll be demanding the return of a 10-percent tip recommendation on the app. Previously, the app automatically suggested a 10-percent tip. Now it automatically recommends a 5-percent tip, with a $2 minimum—and some Instacart workers say they’re not even receiving that.
“I’ve seen defaults come in at like $1.98 and I know darn well nobody is going in and typing $1.98 for a tip,” Carrico said. “People can be jerks but people aren’t that cruel. So I don’t think the default of 5 percent or $2 is consistent.”
Vanessa Bain, a Silicon Valley-based Instacart worker who has seen her pay drop over nearly four years, said the new tipping recommendations have “started conditioning their customers to tip less and less… From a material standpoint, we’re scraping by on a fraction of what we used to make.”
Asked about the upcoming strike, Instacart said the company “take[s] the feedback of the shopper community very seriously and remain committed to listening to and using that feedback to improve their experience.”
Since Instacart shoppers lack a centralized workplace, they plan to jam the Instacart app, Vice first reported. Depending on the risk workers are willing to take on, participating workers will either turn off their apps, cancel orders, or accept orders and then let them time out. Between the lack of shoppers on the platform, and the mass cancellations, Instacart workers hope to throw the app into disarray and pressure Instacart into restoring their old tipping policy.
Erik Loomis an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, said the strategy might work, precisely because Instacart doesn’t employee any full-time workers to replace the strikers.
“Because these workers personally control so much of this Instacart system, by cancelling orders they can actually raise a lot of havoc, if they have a decent number of people,” said Loomis, who studies American labor movements. “Giving a company that kind of bad publicity very well may lead to a solution to this problem.”
The General Motors and Chicago teachers strikes were backed by unions, which many gig workers can’t join because their companies do not classify them as full employees.
“When you’re organizing contractors, there’s a fine line you’re walking between what could be considered a violation of antitrust law and organizing,” Bain said. “I think it highlights our need for enhanced and greater workplace protection because these jobs really need to be organized. These platforms have engaged in what feels like perpetual warfare against their workers.”
The lack of employee status can make protesting difficult, but not impossible, Loomis said.
“That’s not the only method of collective power,” he said of traditional union-backed strikes. “There are, one might argue, some advantages to being outside that system of power because it frees you up. The things that restrict you under a traditional union election don’t apply here.”
Certain demonstrations like sympathy strikes, for example, can land union workers in legal trouble, while non-unionized workers have more flexibility to protest.
The lack of a centralized workplace, like a school or a factory, has also forced app-based workers to innovate. Much of Instacart’s upcoming strike has been organized through a Facebook group for Instacart workers across the country. Those strike plans then spread outward to smaller groups for Instacart workers in a specific region.
But not all Instacart workers are in the groups, which limits the organizing efforts. “I think the count is 70,000 shoppers in the country (that’s an old count) but there’s only about 14,000 of us in the national group, so there are a lot that don’t even know about this,” Carrico said.
To spread information, strike participants are encouraged to follow the “five-person rule”: tell five other Instacart shoppers about the upcoming protest. Carrico said she’s taken to carrying flyers about the demonstration for other workers when she goes to the store.
Drivers for Lyft and Uber have also relied on Facebook while coordinating strikes this year said Brian Dolber, an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. The group helped organize a strike in April, and a particularly high-profile strike of Uber drivers the day before Uber’s entry on the stock market this May.
“What we’ve done is pioneered a hybrid digital and IRL approach to organizing,” Dolber said “Because there is no real central location where drivers interact, we’re working with an app developer.” The group uses Facebook to reach out to drivers and direct them to its app where, in an inversion of how Uber and Lyft typically operate, drivers can strategize ways to stop work.
“That’s been an enormously helpful approach in bringing together an organization and having people interact in real life through meetings and ultimately organizing the strikes we built in the spring,” Dolber said.
A successful campaign will be a numbers game.
“If everyone actually tells five people, then we know we’re gold,” Clarke said. “We know it’ll work.”
Carrico estimated that approximately 75 percent of Instacart shoppers in her local Facebook group support the strike, “but there’s enough people blowing back. And some of their concerns are valid. I understand the ‘We want Instacart to pay more. This shouldn’t be shoved off on customers,’” she said
“That’s a valid argument, but the reality of our service industry culture is that employers—or whoever it is that contracts us—pays low and tipping is expected,” she continued “Until we change that, fighting for it is kind of like swimming against the tide.”
But Instacart workers won’t know just how far their movement has spread until Nov. 3, when their colleagues across the country either put down the app or keep shopping.
“I’m gonna say 30,000 shoppers, if we’re getting the word out properly,” Wiggins said. “And most shoppers are not on the platform full-time, so it’s a very hard number to pin down.”
“I’ll bet you Instacart has it figured out.”